Each year, the texts assigned to Ash Wednesday have to do with fasting and right spiritual practice. Then, on the first Sunday of Lent, our Gospel texts always recount Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, when he fasted and was tempted by Satan. The symmetry works well. Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week, and it is well to think about just what is involved. It is a time, as Beverly said on Wednesday, to create a space in our lives that God alone is to fill. But, we need also to understand why that space is not there in our lives and how we have filled it with things other than God, leaving no room for God. Thus, it is appropriate that, on the first Sunday of Lent, we think about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, because he, who was tempted in every way as we are, shows us what our temptations really are about. He shows us where we are tempted to fill ourselves with things that do not fulfill life.
But, as I say that, let me note that there is also another side to the accounts of Jesus’ temptations; something besides the dark temptations themselves. There is also a positive side, which is to say, whatever he is holding out for when he resists the tempter’s suggestions. That is the most important thing of all in these accounts. We learn from these temptations to resist certain offers and ways of living that, in the end, do not fill us and leave us empty once again. But, the life of faith is not about just avoiding things; it is about our journey to a positive end. The reason we do not give into temptations is because, when we do give into them, we are making a bad swap, choosing the false over the true, the empty over the full. What we need to do when faced with temptation is to hold out for the true and the full.
Think about the very first temptation with which Jesus is presented. He is hungry. The tempter tells him to turn the stones of the wilderness into bread. That would fix not only his problem, but if he could keep on reproducing it, it would solve everybody’s hunger problem. He would be adored by all. But he refuses the offer. Why? Because he says, “one does not live by bread alone.” Why not? Because one is to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Fullness of life comes from every word that comes from the mouth of God. Living for bread alone will not do it for human beings, no matter how much bread they have.
There is a critical point here, namely, one about the vacuity of living for bread alone. But there is also a positive vision of life as well, one that has to do with the role that the Word of God should play in our lives. That is what I want us to concentrate on this morning. Doing so can also give us, then, some hints as to why living by bread alone cannot satisfy.
So, in order to think about the importance of the words that proceed from God, think first, about words in general, about what they are and what they do.
If asked, most people would likely say that words name things – chairs, tables, people – and activities – running, standing, sitting. In sentences, we put all these names together and represent them. Through those representations we can also compare and reason about them.
But if that were all language were, all we would ever do is name and describe things. I suppose we could do science of a sort. But we do much more than just these things. We laugh. We cry out in pain. We promise. We encourage. We tell stories, and we try out hypotheses. We talk to each other, and we make plans. We listen to the words of our forebears and we learn their wisdom. We teach their words to our children so that they can carry on a way of life. “We will not hide [the things our ancestors have told us] from our children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord...” the psalmist says.
In all those things, there is a lot more than merely describing things and in that “lots more” lies human life in its real depth, and all its glories and also its frustrations. We use words to do things, and the things we do with them, beyond describing, are often what are most important to us. Our abilities to use words well are our abilities to find depth in our lives. For instance, people who don’t know how to look each other in the eye and talk to others, perhaps over hours, will be people who do not have deep relationships and who will not, therefore, be very deep themselves. Our relations depend a great deal on our words. In fact, our relations come out of the words we use to others and how we hear their words. We have friends, and our friendships are created and depend upon our words. With words and promises, we also build communities and the institutions that sustain our communities. Without words, these things wouldn’t be part of our lives.
Yet, all these things of depth are also intertwined with other parts of our lives. We need our daily bread. And, because bread is not always there when we want or need it and because bread can be a metaphor for any number of other things that we think we need to live – money, social standing, prestige, admiration, power – the struggle for our daily bread interjects itself into all our relations, our friendships, our communities, our institutions. The search for depth in human life is often at odds with the struggle for bread. Now, of course, we seek balance between the two, but, too often, the struggle for bread in all its forms comes to dominate life. Balance becomes taking care of the bread first, and, only later, when we have time, dealing with depth and intimacy. So, it is no surprise that after a while the pursuit of bread comes to dominate. Not that we always notice it. What is more likely is that bread, in all less literal forms, becomes a substitute for depth. We replace relations of intimacy with relations of commerce. Our intimate values become commercial values. Everything then has a price.
Take a simple example. We eat to live. But every culture surrounds eating with a lot of meaning, and how we eat says a great deal about our values. For example, family meals used to be of great importance. Now, however, few families eat together and talk. Instead, as everybody is pursuing success at earning bread, or putting their kids into a position to earn it, we either eat at our desks and keep working, or we eat with others mainly for business reasons. Activities that used to develop intimacy and depth are now tied to the values of the marketplace.
Of course, we do need bread to live. But, we do not need an infinite amount of it. We do not need all its forms and we should not use them as substitutes for deeper things, especially when pursuing them means losing the better part of our lives, especially if it means we no longer know the truth about our lives or being able to speak truth at all.
So, that is how words work for us and what they do. Consider now what the Word of God is, and what it means to live by every word that comes from God, and what it adds to the mix. One can do that simply by looking at the distinctive words that come from our Lord’s mouth. He speaks, and by speaking he heals. He commands and the winds obey him. But less grandly, and what is really much more important to us, is how he speaks to his people. Over the course of his ministry he calls them, and calls them by their names. He teaches them about right and wrong, about what is high and what is base. He commissions them and sends them out as co-workers in his mission. He calls them friends. As his friends, he forgives them when they foolishly err, even when they deny him. He promises them the life in God, he prays for them, and he consoles them when things are hard. He eats with them, and institutes a meal that they are always to eat so that he might be with them to speak all these kinds of words over and over again to eternity, and until they are joined to him in eternal life. In short, by his words he creates a human community that has its roots in the love of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who dwell with us in this new community and who open to us new relations of love and communion.
So, knowing this, what does it mean to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God? It means to be on intimate terms with the speaker of those words. It means to listen attentively. It means to follow those words, for, in following them, we get a sense of what is most valuable for human life and what is not so essential. It also means that in these words we have the sort of bread that will actually sustain us in pursuing what is most important. It means also not substituting other words, or putting God’s words into second place, or even tenth place.
But, all that also means forming a certain kind of community, a set of relations with others and with God, one that gives us a new kind of life and one that calls us higher, and one that puts everything else into relation with this relation with God. To live by God’s word is not to add just another relation to our lives. It is actually to live with a certain kind of balance, where love for neighbor never comes in second to taking care of ourselves, where, in fact, taking care of ourselves and taking care of others do not compete. It is where we seek our daily bread, but take joy in being generous with it, for, after all, we know it is a gift.
How does that work? Well, as an example, consider this meal in all its physical, spiritual and symbolic forms. This meal consists of bread and wine. It is part of our daily bread. But, in eating it, there is more than just eating bread and drinking wine that is going on. In eating and drinking, we are being formed into a community with God, for God makes himself present to us in this meal. We also form a community with those who are with us here, and also with a countless number of women and men across the world and across the ages. This meal shapes us and forms us and our expectations. It is a gift, and, in eating it, we learn how to receive. Eating and drinking here are a matter of thanksgiving for that gift. Not only that; in this meal we also learn how God transforms lives, just as he transforms the meaning of bread and wine. There is a lot more in what is given to us than just bread alone. That is what God’s Word does.
God does something similar with our lives when we listen and when we eat. He gives them new significance just as he trans-signifies bread and wine. And so, just as that happens to us, we should also learn how to be transformers of what matter means. We should learn how to make the bread of our lives into something holy. We should transform all our other relations, the bread we earn, the people we know into part of this divine community. This meal also teaches us forgiveness, the forgiveness that is necessary to keep the community going. Finally, in eating and drinking them, this bread and wine also challenge us to go out and continue speaking the words that Christ taught us and doing the things with words that he did in choosing us and loving us.
So, now, we may ask one more time: “What does it mean to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God?” Well, as it turns out, it doesn’t just mean paying attention to what the Bible says and following it closely, although reading and following what the Bible says are surely important and part of the process. In the end, it means something deeper. For, to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God is to live, to be in a holy relation with others, including God. It is to live in a way that comes from taking into ourselves God’s living word in God’s called community. To live that way, is to have the gift of balance that we otherwise so often miss or struggle to achieve.
It follows from that what the problem also is in trying to live by bread alone. To live by bread alone is to live without that sense of transcendence, or transformation of meaning and people. It is to live with a material world that promises but cannot deliver deepest meaning by itself. It may be to live for oneself alone and it is certainly to live without the divine community. It especially means to live without that divine balance that knows the worth of bread and the worth of people, and the destiny of our lives. It to live incompletely, and all too often with substitutes that do not satisfy.
So, take this bread and this cup. Learn what it means to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Do not cheat yourselves by trying to live by bread alone.